Local bestselling novelist to speak at Northshire Bookstore Feb. 8

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Family.

Just say the word again, to yourself, in a quiet moment. Perhaps it conjures images of a closely knit, loving group of common ancestry. Or maybe thoughts and memories of dysfunction and stress, pain and suffering.

Or none of the above, but almost certainly not anything in between. More often than not, family takes us to places of extremes in a rollercoaster ride that rarely seems to stop at the gate for the unwilling to jump off, and then never to make their way back.

Given this, the interesting thing about family - the word - is that it follows from the Middle English familie, which is derived from the Latin familia or household, which included servants as well as blood relations of the householder, stemming ultimately from famulus or servant.

Why do I perseverate on the etymology of this word, whose unit has brought both delight and distress to the human condition?

Because while consuming Meg Little Reilly's soon-to-be-released third novel, "The Misfortunes of Family," (MIRA Books, 2020, trade paperback, 338 pages, $16.99), I couldn't help thinking that her protagonists, the Bright family, while servants to the people, in many ways were slaves to themselves.

The Brights, you see, are a political powerhouse, a dynasty of sorts which suggest the Kennedys, Roosevelts and the Bushes.

There's plenty of intrigue around the Brights, who come complete with their own New England summering in the Berkshires, where four sons Philip, Spenser. Charlie and JJ, with families in tow, huddle in both the light and shadows of Western Massachusetts with Senator John Bright, now retired, and the queen of the whole group, the matchless matron of the clan, Patty.

With near soap-opera like progression, family flaws and confidences start tearing at the fabric of the poised and perfect band of Brights, as an erstwhile secret is no more. The tension rises, exposing the human frailty inherent in us all.

If you have read Reilly's work before, then you would be familiar with her penchant for smooth and simple, yet effective, scene setting. If not, here's a quick take as Mary Beth and Philip sit silently on the couch:

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"She was aware of the camera still watching them from the other end of the room — with Farah now behind it — but she cared less and less about that. Farah had become a friendly ghost, sometimes visible, sometimes not, always watching them. It was inexplicably okay, a comfort even, to know someone was bearing witness."

Transitions such as that one connect a dialogue-heavy story, and Reilly seems painfully aware that how a family member says something is equally if not more important than what they say.

In packing this book with the speech of her numerous characters, one can't help thinking what excellent candidates the Brights are for TV or the silver screen, since family dramas are well-known sellers if they take root and survive their first screenings/seasons.

As such, I found them all well-suited for the visual, a medium that might do them more justice than print. It also wouldn't surprise me to learn that studio honchos and Reilly's reps will someday be in discussion to make this happen.

Still, as a former White House operative in the Obama administration who has sought the simpler life — of what else? Family — in Vermont, Reilly spends her days as a communications writer at Bennington College, focusing on speeches for its president. Apparently, her nights and weekends produce quick-read, entertaining novels every few years.

Based on her experience, then, the realism she can bring to bear on a political family is second to none. And, whether subconsciously or deliberately, Reilly seems to channel her inner Emily Dickinson with an apparent love affair and mastery of dashes throughout the book's narrative: it's something not many writers of prose can handle, but Reilly does so seamlessly.

The book, broken up in 47 very easily consumed chapters, is written in the third person with one exception of a first person narrative late in the story that will either annoy the hell out of you for the interruption, or have you grasp Reilly's purpose for the device.

Also included is a smart, tidy reader's guide, ostensibly designed for book groups, but could be used in classrooms, too. The guide contains discussion questions as well as a Q and A with the author that hones in on story characters and context mostly.

In all, "The Misfortunes of Family" moves along quickly, is entertaining, and makes you want to see it all play out more on TV or at the movies. Which ultimately, might make the story a servant to Hollywood. Already a member of the political and literary clans, based on etymology alone, this would seem to offer Reilly a future place in yet another family.

Meg Little Reilly will discuss her new novel, "The Misfortunes of Family," with distinguished magazine journalist and historian Garrett M. Graff, author of "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11," on Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester. Info: 802-362-2200 or www.northshire.com

Award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias is the secretary of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Email: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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